But by the 1960s, a few pre-season friendlies were the norm.
The Summer of Love was in full swing as Bill Leivers set about assembling his squad for a tilt at the 1967/68 Southern League championship. Ignoring calls to stick flowers in his short back and sides and leave for San Francisco, he got to work on a reshuffle of his resources.
Leivers could never be accused of lack of ambition. He told the late, lamented East Anglian football magazine Shoot!: ‘We want to win everything, the Southern League Championship, the FA Cup, the European Cup. We don’t say we shall win these things but to succeed we must be ambitious.’
He brought in defender Pat Quartermain from Oxford, winger Billy Wall from Cambridge City and full back Keith Lindsey from Doncaster. But his biggest summer signing was that of Harry ‘Bud’ Houghton.
Bud was a 31-year-old, India-born centre forward who had scored heavily for Chelmsford for several seasons after a good League career with Bradford Park Avenue, Birmingham, Southend, Oxford and Lincoln. He was imposing in the air, had a cracking shot and knew where the goal was.
As a glamorous-looking home friendly against Norwich approached, United got used to wearing new black shorts with their plain amber shirts and took in the changes that had taken place at the Abbey Stadium: the main stand was almost complete, reaching just past the halfway line; there was a new car park at the Newmarket Road entrance; and the Habbin terrace's roof had been extended.
Playing 4-2-4 against the Canaries, the U’s looked to have gained a draw through a Dai Ward goal, but Hugh Curran scored his team’s second two minutes from time to snatch the win.
Leivers was more interested in giving his side stiff tests away to clubs at their own level, so other friendlies were arranged at Corby, where United lost 4-3 to a last-minute goal, and at Cheshire County League champions Altrincham, where they slumped to an embarrassing 7-1 drubbing.
The scores had been level at half-time, but sub keeper Keith Barker conceded half a dozen after the break as his team tired after a six-hour coach journey.
There had been talk of tough pre-season training sessions with hours of running, but the squad had only left Coldhams Common twice: once for a run and once for a spot of golf at Newmarket.
‘Skill comes before brawn, and we have been training to play football, not to become long distance runners,’ observed Leivers. ‘After all, if you want to practise the piano you don’t start by running round and round it.’ Wise words, Bill.
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